Friday, February 11, 2011

Episode 11 - The Sons of Salmon

L to R: Narii, Ariipaea, and Tati Salmon c.1888

Alexander and Ariitaimai Salmon had three sons. The oldest Tati and the youngest son Narii were hard-working, conscientious men who were unfortunate not to inherit their father’s business acumen. Tati took up his father’s role in farming the family lands – growing, producing, and exporting coffee, oranges, vanilla, sugar cane, rum, and copra (dried coconut meat used to make soap). Narii, gentle and handsome, ran a pearl fishery in the Tuamotu Islands. Pearl diving was a very specialized and risky business, and Narii lost several boats and hundreds of dollars worth of goods in the frequent cyclones that plagued the southern Pacific.
By the 1890s, both Tati and Narii were over-extended and in deep financial trouble. Tati’s situation was exacerbated by the responsibilities associated with being chief of the Teva clan, which he had taken over from his mother. The chief was required by tradition to host feast days for up to 2,000 people to commemorate weddings, funerals, or important events in the clan’s history. All of the food had - by tradition - to be provided by the chief and his immediate household, and Tati was not one to shirk his time-honored duty.     
These expenses were compounded by Tati’s immense generosity to visitors from overseas, a tradition fundamental to the Tahitian way of life. New arrivals always came equipped with letters of introduction to Tati Salmon from former visitors to the island who had benefited from his largesse in the past. His guests included the penniless Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson, Count Rudolf Festetics von Tolna of Hungary, and Prince Oscar of Sweden among many others.
But no visitor left a more lasting impression than Henry Adams, the American historian, who visited Tahiti in 1891 after his wife’s suicide. He was wholeheartedly embraced by the whole Salmon family, which helped him to recover his zest for living, and for the rest of his life he was devoted to them. When he discovered the extent of Tati and Narii’s debts, Adams, a multi-millionaire, immediately insisted on helping them financially. The brothers were grateful and always intended to pay Adams back, though he had no desire for them to do so. In late 1892, Tati accepted Adams’ invitation to visit him in the United States. In Washington DC and New York, Adams introduced Tati – “a giant of copper hue, and great social success” – to many famous Americans, including Theodore Roosevelt, later the 26th President of the United States.
The middle son, Alexander Ariipaea (known to the family as Paea) had his own struggles. A loner by temperament, he spent 11 happy years on Easter Island running his brother-in-law John Brander’s vast sheep ranch and helping to preserve the artifacts and culture of the island’s native population. But in 1888 the House of Brander sold its land on the island to the Chilean government, and Paea had to come home. He was as gentle and amiable as his brothers, but his love of alcohol and his spendthrift ways got him into repeated trouble. After spending time in prison in Papeete for assault and battery, Paea lived in the remotest of the Tuamotu Islands where he collected oral histories from the residents as he had done on Easter Island. Later in life he moved to San Francisco where he was implicated in a farcical scheme to marry ex-Queen Liliuokalani of Hawaii for her money and was arrested for non-payment of debt, before being bailed out by his sister Moetia Atwater.

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